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Posted April 23, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Human Rights

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Thousands of Mariel refugees found freedom and fulfillment even if they didn’t find their way to South Florida, as most of them did.

Posted on Sat, Apr. 23, 2005

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Nelson De la Torre sought asylum at the Peruvian embassy in Havana on that day in 1980 for the simplest of reasons: He wanted to be free to say whatever he wanted, to take whatever job he wanted, to meet with whomever he wanted.

And now, 25 years after the incident that sparked the massive Mariel boatlift, De la Torre has found what he wanted—in Costa Rica.

He owns his own business—a bakery. He owns his own home and he owns his own car—none of which he could have attained in Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

‘‘I’ve achieved my dreams here by working hard,’’ he said.

Of the 125,000 Cubans who left the Communist-ruled island country amid the Mariel crisis, De la Torre is one of the few thousand who did not settle in the United States. Through twists of fate, they created new lives in places as diverse as Canada, Australia, Costa Rica, Spain, Pakistan and Peru. Still others settled in the United States, but outside South Florida.

The vast majority—like De la Torre—are believed to have made the new start they sought. But a small group of them—about 50—live in a sandy shantytown in Lima, stuck in a bureaucratic no-man’s land, still unable to emigrate to the United States.

Silvio Acosta was part of the flotilla that left Cuba through the port of Mariel and landed at Key West. He was then shipped to a military base in Wisconsin as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to avoid burdening South Florida with too many of the arrivals.

He moved to where his wife had a brother, in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York City, where the second largest number of Mariel refugees settled. The community already was home to a large Cuban population.

A physical education teacher in Havana, Acosta had trouble finding work at first given the huge influx of Mariel Cubans who arrived in New Jersey—estimated at 25,000 to 35,000.

With assistance from the Catholic Church, he began stocking supplies at a lamp factory warehouse. A year later, he was driving a limousine. Three years later, he opened a small printing shop.

‘‘In Cuba, I wouldn’t have even thought about doing that,’’ Acosta said by telephone from his home in West New York, N.J. ``It wouldn’t have been possible to switch from one job to another. The government would have had to give permission.’‘

In 1986, he became a U.S. citizen. Today, Acosta, 59, works as a building inspector and is a fervent New York Yankees fan.

‘‘Cuba is my homeland,’’ he said. ``But I defend this country like any other American.’‘

Juan Abreu is one of the Mariel refugees who lived in Miami for a time—about 15 years—and then moved on.

Abreu began to paint and write in Miami—he and several refugee friends founded the defunct Mariel magazine in the mid-1980s—but he found life in Miami ``too fast, too materialistic.’‘

He moved to Barcelona, where he has flourished, churning out six novels and his autobiography, On the Shadow in the Sea.

‘‘I have a lot of friends who hide the fact that they are Marielitos,’’ Abreu said. ``But I’m proud of it.’‘

Felix Campo wishes he had left Cuba on one of those boats.

Campo was one of the 10,800 people who crowded the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy after Castro removed the guards outside and invited the discontented to seek asylum. Castro was angry that the Peruvian foreign ministry was refusing to hand over the six Cubans who had crashed a city bus through the gate in a desperate bid to gain asylum.

All but 800 of those encamped on the embassy grounds accepted Castro’s offer to leave Cuba through Mariel. After 59 days, the Peruvian government worked out a deal to send the 800 to Lima with the expectation that Peru would serve as a temporary home before they could travel to Miami. Instead, after they arrived, the U.S. government said they could not head to Florida because they were no longer persecuted.

‘‘It is a tragedy and a cruel twist of destiny that many of the people who paved our way to freedom, who truly voted with their feet, ended up living in abject poverty in Lima with no possibility to ever come to the United States,’’ said Mirta Ojito, a Mariel refugee, former Herald reporter and author of the recently published Finding Maana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus.

After living in a Lima park for three years, Campo and those who hadn’t yet found a way out of Peru were given one-room homes in the Villa El Salvador shantytown on the southern outskirts of Lima.

‘‘I wish I could go to the United States,’’ Campo told The Herald recently, sitting on his twin bed, several shirts hanging from a clothesline overhead. ``We don’t get much support from the government here.’‘

In contrast, Francisco Raul Diaz embraces Lima.

He intended to leave Cuba during the Mariel crisis but actually didn’t make it to Peru until 1993, when Cuban authorities finally allowed him to leave.

After finally arriving in Peru, Diaz drove a micro-bus. In time, he bought the vehicle. Now he owns a car and ferries visiting businessmen to and from appointments.

‘‘I have freedom to do what I want,’’ Diaz said, in his first newspaper interview about what happened 25 years ago.

``I can work where I want to work. I can do whatever I’m capable of achieving.

‘‘I would do it again, without a doubt,’’ he added. ``Liberty doesn’t have a price.’‘

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